Ai Weiwei and refugees

The thought experiment of the drowning child is important in philosophy. Devised by Peter Singer, its main claim is: “if you can save a life without sacrificing anything of moral significance, you ought to do so”. Its implications are far reaching. What if the child is far away? What if there are many children, and no way of assessing which one is in most urgent need? The list of questions goes on. Singer’s argument is not without problems, but the parallel between the thought experiment and what is happening now in Europe is obvious.

The very image of drowning children is now a daily occurrence in Europe. How should we respond? How are we responding, in the here and now? The answers to these questions have both practical and ethical implications.

The aesthetic, and not the ethical, aspect of this question forms part of the answer. What do photography, performance and visual art have to say about the way we see refugees?

The recent photograph of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei posing as Aylan Kürdi is interesting in this respect. Attempting to “raise awareness about the plight of refugees”, Weiwei ends up aestheticizing. He uses what has now become a symbol of refugee deaths in the Mediterranean in a way that brings to mind a fashion shoot (try googling “refugee fashion”). Posing as Aylan, Weiwei strips the original image of its visual impact. Instead, he renders it into a mere substitute of a representation (that is, of another substitute). A cultural signifier, symbolizing all refugees coming into Europe in 2015 and beyond. Yet it cannot serve as anything but an approximation of the reality of death by drowning. The image of the child is thereby stripped of its connotations of unspeakable violence. Instead, it becomes just another way to represent “what it is to be a refugee”. The reason it does not quite achieve its purpose is simple. Reactions to the image of drowned Aylan were a mixture of shock and grief. The image heightened reactions to the point of powerlessness, like during natural disasters.

Let us compare the image of Weiwei (and similar depictions or representations of the life of refugees), and Michael Haneke’s body of work. Close examination of Haneke’s work reveals a preoccupation, fixation even, with how violence is used (or not used) as a plot device in cinema. In interviews, Haneke has argued that not showing violence has greater impact than showing them in gory detail. The moral reason for this aesthetic choice is uncomplicated. We must not become used to the violence, stripped of context and without room to think about our options. Yet Weiwei’s photograph does just that: it reproduces the pose to raise awareness but, in doing so, normalizes war and the struggle to escape it.

There is still something which we do not see: how people came to be refugees. We seldom see the bombings, the terror campaigns, the troops deployed to fight ISIS. In this sense, what Weiwei is doing is sensationalize the product of that violence. Yet violence and its result are not easy to distinguish between in the context of flight from war. The very flight of refugees is violence in itself. The hardening stance of the powers that be is another type of violence, of which drowning is only the most obvious form.

Weiwei is not the only culprit. The photograph of dead Aylan was already one of the most viewed images in 2015, well before Weiwei posed as him. This reveals much about the way we react to the arrival of war stricken people in Europe. Dead Aylan is, furthermore, the contemporary equivalent of starving children in Somalia in the ’80s. Those images, like the photo of Aylan now, were used to mobilize and raise awareness but, through overuse, their message was lost. “Feed the World” is now yet another Christmas chorus. Aylan, the only name that survives among hundreds of thousands.

Singer argues that, were we able to save the drowning child by, for example, sending $700 to her country, then we ought to do so. The volunteer experience on the Greek islands shows that many people would very much agree. Yet the same time, we run the risk of aestheticizing. Thinking we can save the drowning children by taking photographs of them, or of ourselves as them, using the latest $700 iPhone.

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